Commission pay raise on ballot could save county billions
By Michael Lewis
Friends called about Tuesday's ballot. They'd decided on president and Congress, but how should they vote on the charter issues?
The easiest "yes," I told them, is one that looks like a sure "no": raise Miami-Dade commissioners' pay and make them quit outside jobs.
It seems like a no-brainer "no" because some commissioners have been caught in ethical lapses and scandals, have let billions flow down the drain in project overruns and have shown little vision for the community's future.
Why, my friends ask, would we reward that performance with a raise?
The answer is that this charter amendment wouldn't reward all commissioners. It would actually punish the weak ones and reward taxpayers.
To follow that logic, you have to follow the money.
Miami-Dade is the state's largest county, but its commission pay of $6,000 is the lowest.
This county of 2,402,208 persons in 2006 paid commissioners less than a third of what 7,782-resident Liberty County did, $22,143. Liberty County's commissioners got about $3 per resident served. Ours got a quarter of a cent apiece.
In 66 Florida counties, commission pay is based on population. Liberty is smallest — our county government alone employs four times as many people as live there. So Liberty's commissioners get least — except in Miami-Dade, because we opted out of the pay scale.
Using that scale, every single county pays commissioners more than triple what we do — in big counties more than 15 times as much, $91,995. The ballot question asks us to match the big counties.
Back in 1957, when a soft drink cost a nickel, not a dollar, Miami-Dade won home rule, which let us opt out of many state requirements. One was commission pay. We set $6,000.
That was fair back then for just attending meetings in a county that planned to soon yield local powers to cities and handle only area-wide policy. Most of that power handoff, however, never came. Instead, the county took more and more to itself as it grew and grew.
Today, Miami-Dade commissioners say grace over a $7.4 million budget, more people than 97 nations, more land than 60 nations and complex decisions unimagined in 1957 — including how to help a community that's sliding deeper into recession.
A commissioner's job now is definitely fulltime, professional work far beyond the scope of 1957.
But as duties expanded, inflation shrank the pay — it would take $42,000 today just to equal what $6,000 was worth in 1957. Our commissioners have far more to do but get paid in real dollars just one-seventh of what we paid in 1957.
Today's pay works out to $3 an hour as commissioners expend $7.4 billion a year. If you can think of anything more inequitable, please let me know.
Unfair as it is to commissioners, it's more unfair to us. No matter their quality, the incumbents win re-election. They seldom face solid opponents, because few people can afford to battle for high-profile, fulltime jobs that pay $3 an hour. Just think, the minimum wage next year will be $7.25.
So we retain forever officials about whom we complain bitterly and we can't get qualified challengers to at least offer a choice. The pay is shameful to commissioners and it prevents us from upgrading the candidate pool.
Frankly, not raising pay would be a gift to some commissioners. Not only would they be assured of perpetual re-election for lack of good opponents, but they could keep outside jobs that pay them far more than the proposed $91,995 county pay.
It's a gift we should not give under any circumstances.
As I told my friends, if they value present commissioners, raise their pay to match Broward and other large counties. Be fair.
But if they deem present commissioners inadequate, give the position a real salary anyhow so that strong contenders can compete.
The proposed raise for 13 commissioners would total $1.2 million a year. But weak commissioners can waste many times that much in a single meeting. Many, many times.
Not to pay more is pennywise but very pound foolish.
Commissioners, by the way, didn't seek the raise. A charter review that recommends changes in county government did.
This is the ninth time a raise has been on the ballot. The other eight failed because taxpayers didn't want to reward incumbents. And so eight times they condemned us to mediocrity forever.
Boy, did we show those commissioners! We made sure they'd never lose their jobs.
Now, facing increasingly difficult economic decisions, we need the best and brightest to seek elected office for the right reasons.
This charter amendment would make every commissioner fulltime, which many now are not. It would prevent the conflicts of interest that second jobs present even the best of them. And it would open the door to many more citizens who couldn't live with just $6,000 and who wouldn't cheat to get more.
As I told my friends, the less you like the way the commission works now, the more you should want to vote for this raise, not as a reward but as an investment in our future.